Vanishing Religion

Fewer people are participating in organized religion in America. Yet, even those who do not participate believe that organized religion is a good thing.

When I was in college, I turned away from going to church. I looked around, saw all the hypocrisy, and decided my attendance was a waste of time. I never took Greg to church either.

Still, I had some core beliefs and when I stated them to a friend who is Jewish, she told me I was a Unitarian Universalist. That was over 40 years ago and, after researching the UUs, I still didn’t go to church until years later.

Although I have gone through periods of attending UU churches, I still don’t call myself religious. I certainly don’t call myself a Christian, although I follow Christ’s teachings.  Like many Americans, I think I am “spiritual.”  I don’t like that term, however. I think it means almost nothing. People who enjoy a sunset, or think a spider web is cool think that is being spiritual. I don’t know what the word means to most people. For me spiritual means pondering why I am alive, what I should be doing with my life, and if there is a higher being who at least got the ball rolling. Perhaps these people turning away from religion, but calling themselves spiritual, are like me.

Getting back to the point, I was listening to a program on the Sound of Ideas last Thursday. A panel of people from organized religions, a professor of philosophy and a non-believer from the Center for Inquiry were discussing the findings from the Pew Forum: Growth of the Non-Religious. vanishing religion

The Forum found that even people who did not attend church believed that organized religions were a good thing. The panel discussed the connection of religion to morals. While most people felt that people could be moral without attending church, there were positive behaviors and thoughts that church teaching enforced.

The idea of people being moral without religion is also being proven at Yale where psychologists demonstrate that babies as young as three months choose good over bad. (Likewise, these same babies will choose a “bad boy” who likes the same cereal they do thus enforcing the idea that we like “us” over “them” no matter how bad they may be.)

In addition to enforcing our inert morality, churches can give people connections to like-minded congregants who can reinforce and encourage each other. Churches offer fellowship, pastoral care, counseling, and religious and cultural education. I am very glad I know about Moses, Jonah and the whale, and the Garden of Eden. I’m not sure how I would have picked up this knowledge without attending Sunday school and Vacation Bible School. I’m sad my son does not have this cultural background.

Nonetheless, there are things I’m glad he has missed. He will not believe that he is doomed to hell because he does not believe in the literal resurrection of Christ. He will not believe that the earth was created literally in 7 days or that Eve was responsible for original sin, or that homosexuality is a sin. He will, however, follow Christ’s teachings of loving his fellow man and being his brother’s keeper. Even with his very limited income, he personally delivered money to the local Salvation Army.  Christ, Buddha, and Mohammad would be proud of my son and how he follows their teachings.

Today, there are many people like my son who follow the teachings of the great religious leaders without bowing at their alters and following their dogmas. There are also “cafeteria” Christians (and I’m sure Jews, Muslims, and Hindus) who follow the tenets of their faith that are in alignment with their personal beliefs and ignore the parts they don’t believe. When a friend converted to Catholicism near retirement, her priest told her she did not have to go to confession.  There is a spectrum of devout fundamentalist Christians at one end and once-a-year non-members who pick and choose what to believe and practice at the other end. They all call themselves Believers and many would say they belong to an organized religion.

I’m not sure what this diverse spectrum of beliefs means for the moral and ethical outlook of our country. We see the transgressions of our politicians, celebrities, and athletes and shake our heads at how sad it is that they not only sin, but also don’t seem to know that what they are doing IS a sin. Is this because they didn’t go to church? Is it because depraved, or at least indifferent, parents raised them?  Still scarier, were they born without that moral imperative those three month old babies demonstrated?

As for me, I think that organized religions fill a purpose for some people. They need that connection to the choir, a cross on the alter, iconic stained glass windows, and preachers who bring them peace. Others, like a long time friend I walked with last week, find the same solace in meditation, studying, and living in the present moment. Still others seem to get by just fine with none of that.

Being in the moment

Being in the moment

I’m seeking and evolving. I’ve found a personal god who listens to my prayers and meditations without requiring church attendance. I may not be getting the only Truth, but my life seems to be working for me.




One response to “Vanishing Religion”

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  1. Carolyn says:

    Karen, what a thoughtful column. Obviously, you have given all this a great deal of thought throughout your life and are satisfied with your beliefs. Most of us will come to terms with it somehow, especially as we get older. I am satisfied too; Christ is a real person in my life!

    If I had been a participant at the forum you heard, I might have mentioned that it is my opinion that American Christianity has lost its way in many places. People have been let down by it and find no reason to attend church. Many pulpits have debased the faith and turned it into something its not. Very sad.

    Thank you for this post!